Audrey’s Women of Influence | Alex Wagner, Host of MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner

Article: WOMEN OF INFLUENCE
ISSUE: FALL 2013

Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE ASIAN AMERICAN INFLUENTIAL WOMEN!

by Ada Tseng

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ALEX WAGNER
Host of MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner

If two Fulbright scholars from Burma have a daughter, and this progressively minded woman, who worked at the historic nonprofit American Association of University Women (AAUW) to empower young girls, procreates with a top U.S. political strategist who worked on Ted Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s campaigns for president, you might just end up with someone like Alex Wagner, the host of MSNBC’s daily political opinion program NOW with Alex Wagner.

According to Wagner, her interest in journalism started “in utero,” and she worked on her school newspapers from elementary school all the way through college. Politics also runs in her bloodstream, and early memories of her father include him coming home every night from the Ted Kennedy campaign, immediately picking up the phone and asking for the poll numbers of the day. “When I was little, that’s how I learned to answer the phone,” says Wagner. “I’d stand on the chair in the kitchen to pick up the phone, and I’d say ‘Give me the numbers!’”

There was always a healthy amount of debate at the dinner table, a skill that would prove helpful many years later when she launched her own show. In addition to showcasing a young, diverse female voice, NOW with Alex Wagner values Wagner’s unconventional broadcast background: she worked on music and cultural magazines before becoming the cultural correspondent for the Center for American Progress; executive director of the advocacy organization Not on Our Watch, started by the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon; White House correspondent for Politics Daily; and then a contributing analyst to MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

NOW highlights issues close to Wagner’s heart, including income inequality, social mobility, immigration, surveillance and national security, but it’s important to Wagner to make news interesting and accessible to a wider audience — whether it’s having openly gay Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn come on to talk about how even conservative New Yorkers are congratulating her on her marriage, or booking untraditional guests like Questlove from The Roots to talk about his reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. “We are all part of the national dialogue,” says Wagner. “It’s just that some voices are heard more than others.”

In 2012, Wagner was given the opportunity to sit down with Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, as part of Amnesty International’s Rights Generation town hall event in Washington, D.C. Wagner’s family on her mother’s side are Burmese exiles who were granted safe passage to the U.S. when her grandmother was hired to head the East Asian books department at the Library of Congress. Decades later, Wagner was able to take her 96-year-old grandmother to meet the iconic pro-democracy leader.

“I don’t want to take away from the fact that it’s a difficult time for Burma,” says Wagner, “but just the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi was released [from 15 years of house arrest], then the fact that she was in the U.S., and then finally that my grandmother could be in the room, alive, to see her gain freedom and have her granddaughter interview her — I never imagined it in my wildest dreams.”

Wagner credits her grandmother, who used to take her to Burmese Democracy Movement protests as a kid, for gifting her a passion for activism and advocacy early. “She was always trying to get arrested,” says Wagner. “Nowadays, more people know about Burma, but this was a time when unspeakable atrocities were being committed against ethnic peoples of Burma, and nobody was paying any attention. My grandmother was out there waving her signs, and she got arrested when she was 84 or 85.” Wagner laughs. “I remember my mother was so indignant, but my grandmother was completely unapologetic.”

It’s this type of political spirit that Wagner wants to inspire in her viewers. “I hope the show is a reminder of the importance of politics, service and democracy, and that it will encourage more people to believe in the process and participate,” she says. “It’d be great if someone thought, ‘I want to make a difference in that issue, so I’m going to run for PTA to get involved in these questions of education, I’m going to march against this cause, or I’m going to get involved in a death penalty case.’ I hope we promote awareness and optimism about the power to change.”

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WEB EXCLUSIVES

On how her parents met

My mother is a Burmese exile. My grandfather was involved in the Burmese government before the military coup, things became very difficult for my family in the early 1960s, and they needed to get out of the country. Both my grandmother and grandfather had been Fulbright scholars who came to the US in 1950s, and my grandmother had done her master’s in Library Science at Catholic University in Washington DC, so they contacted their circles to see if they could get assistance getting out of Burma. The US Library of Congress actually needed someone to be the head of their East Asian Books Department, so they arranged all the papers and necessary visas for my grandmother and uncle and mother to get safe passage to the US. But it took 3 or 4 years for them to get out of the country, and in an absolutely stunning move, the Library of Congress kept the position open for years so that my grandmother and family would have a place that they’d be able to come in the US. My mom and uncle went to college in US, and my grandfather eventually joined them a few years later. My mom was very politically-minded in college and eventually ended up in DC working for Teamsters labor union, and my dad was person who hired her.

On starting NOW with Alex Wagner in 2011 in the midst of the presidential campaigns

[MSNBC president] Phil Griffin is kind of a maverick. He is just went for it. He said, “Let’s just do this thing at noon.” He was upfront. “You’ll probably suck for first six weeks and the first six months, and then you’ll figure it out.” [laughs] He had a very open and adventurous attitude toward it, and since he is the president of the network, if he has that attitude, it’s contagious. You think, let’s give it a shot!

On some levels, it’s harder to start a show during a presidential campaign, but in other ways, it’s easier, because it’s a pre-determined set of stories. Now, we’re in a different period, so the way we go about picking stories is like developing a different muscle group. In some ways, it’s scary and difficult, but if you’re curious about world, it’s a very fortuitous time to be in news.

On learning to share her political opinions on air

There’s a difference between having your point of view in a discussion with your producers and saying it on the air, and it’s taken some time and experience to figure it out. Sometimes I have said things that perhaps were not the most thought-out, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable with the medium, my producers and I have become more comfortable showcasing my opinion and writing scripts that are reflective of my point of view. But at same time, it’s important for us to allow room for debate and discussion that gives ample time to people who have different points of view. As much you may hear my opinion and understand where I’m coming from, I try not to make it so that I’m litigating my point of view — that my view is the only view. Preserving that is a really important part of the show.

Who influences you?

Nelson Mandela is a huge inspiration. I was just looking through biographies of him a couple months ago, when we thought he might pass way, and his life is so incredibly extraordinary. His perseverance and belief in a hope unseen. That’s the story of Mandela that I think everyone should carry with them at all times.

BUY THE FALL 2013 ISSUE FEATURING OUR WOMEN OF INFLUENCE HERE.

 

Audrey Magazine’s Women of Influence | Keli Lee, Executive VP of Casting at ABC Entertainment (with Web Exclusives!)

Article: WOMEN OF INFLUENCE
ISSUE: FALL 2013

Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE ASIAN AMERICAN INFLUENTIAL WOMEN!

by Ada Tseng

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Photo by Narith Vann Ta.

KELI LEE
Executive VP of Casting at ABC Entertainment

For everyone who’s grateful for the recent rise of minority faces on American television, it’s important to note that behind every Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy, every Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim, Jorge Garcia and Naveen Andrews in Lost, is a casting director responsible for pairing these actors with the unforgettable roles that will go down in television history.

Keli Lee, an executive who has been casting TV shows at ABC for more than 20 years, was on her way to law school when she landed a fortuitous college internship that introduced her to the entertainment casting industry. In her first week working for Phyllis Huffman, who often did casting for Clint Eastwood’s films, Lee operated the video camera that captured the auditions for the Academy Award-winning 1992 film Unforgiven. From there, she eventually worked her way up the ladder, and as Executive VP of Casting at ABC, Lee now has a corner office with a view and spends her days looking for the next new star.

Born in South Korea, Lee moved to the States as a toddler, and whenever her father stayed in Korea for work, her adventurous, road-trip-loving mother would move her young kids to a new state every six or seven months, depending on her whims. “Up until I was 13, I never started or finished the same school, so I met thousands of people from around the country,” says Lee. “It forced me to socialize and understand people, and ultimately I think that’s how I got to be good at what I do. I’m searching for people and learning about their emotional core.”

For Lee, more important than finding a good-looking specimen or skilled thespian is determining whether the actor is authentic. “I think within the first 10 seconds of meeting someone, you can get a sense of a person,” says Lee. “You know whether you want to continue to watch them.”

Twelve years ago, Lee started the ABC Casting Department’s Talent Showcase with the goal of providing more opportunities for minority actors who either don’t have representation or aren’t even aware of the opportunities available. Since its inception, 14,000 people have auditioned, and 432 actors have participated in 30 showcases, with winners earning mentorships. Beneficiaries of this program include Liza Lapira (Crazy Stupid Love,Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23), Carrie Ann Inaba (Dancing with the Stars), Aaron Yoo (Disturbia, 21), Archie Kao (CSI), Randall Park (Larry Crowne, The Five-Year Engagement), and Janina Gavankar (True Blood, The L Word).

In the upcoming fall season on ABC, TV audiences can look out for Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Wang Bennet in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Liza Lapira in Super Fun Night, Ginger Gonzaga in Mixology, Summer Bishil in Lucky 7, and Albert Tsai in Trophy Wife.

“My goal is to change the face of television,” says Lee. “When I came to the U.S. at age 2, there wasn’t much diversity on television, and now, it’s such a different time.”

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WEB EXCLUSIVES:

On how she ended up in the casting industry

Like most Korean American families, entertainment [as a career] was not an option. It was the stereotype: are you going to be a doctor or a lawyer? So, I had planned to go to law school, I was studying philosophy at NYU, and I was a hostess at Caroline’s Comedy Club, so it was the comedians who introduced me to the world of entertainment. I actually fell into this business. I got an internship in casting and worked my way up, while I went to school full time at NYU. First, I worked at Warner Brothers, and then I went to ABC, where I’ve been for 21 years.

On starting ABC Casting Department’s Talent Showcase to find diverse talent

12 years ago, we were talking about diversity and thinking about how we can provide more opportunities for diverse actors, so I started this showcase program to give exposure and training to actors who either don’t have the representation or aren’t even aware of the opportunities that exist. After my team auditions the actors, we select the top 15-20, and we put them through this training program. Usually you have material, and you find people to play the characters, but this is the reverse: we find the right actors and then try to find the right material for them. Some of the actors who’ve gone through this program that we’re excited about are: Liza Lapira, who was on Don’t Trust The B—- in Apt 23, Jorge Garcia from Lost, Dania Ramirez from Devious Maids, and Jesse Williams on Grey’s Anatomy.

On their first digital talent competition this summer

This is new. We’re the first network to launch a digital talent competition. We had over 14,000 submissions, we’re having a public vote, and the winner will be announced August 30. The winner gets $10,000 and a talent option hold with ABC. Just based on the submissions, I’m excited to be able to find new faces. These are actors from around the country: there’s coming from everywhere from Florida to Alabama, and it’s really great to hear some of their stories.

On the Latino and Asian Outreach Initiatives

This is international. We started this program last year. For the Latino Outreach, we targeted Mexico, Latin America and Spain, and I’m excited to say that one of actors we found in first year of the Latino Outreach Initiative, Adan Canto, was cast as series regular in Mixology. The Asian Outreach Initiative started in India, and we just expanded to the Philippines this year.

Asian faces to look out for in the 2013-14 ABC season

Aubrey Anderson Emmons in Modern Family
Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Wang Bennet in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Ginger Gonzaga in Mixology
Liza Lapira in Super Fun Night
Sandra Oh in her last season of Grey’s Anatomy
Yunjin Kim in Mistresses
Summer Bishil in Lucky 7
Albert Tsai in Trophy Wife
Griffin Gluck in Back in the Game
Naveen Andrews in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland
Tim Jo in The Neighbors

Who influences you?

I have an amazing circle of really strong, smart, successful female friends, and we feed off that positive energy and help each other out. That’s part of what I do in my profession: I’m helping people realize their dreams, and that’s what we do for each other. I often have these conversations with my girlfriends, where I wish I had women as role models or mentors, so now that we’re in our positions, we think, how can we help empower other women and be role models for them? All these female pioneers paved the way for us, so how can we pave the way for other women?

 

BUY THE FALL 2013 ISSUE FEATURING OUR WOMEN OF INFLUENCE HERE.

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